The Historic Attucks Theatre: Apollo of the South
One of Hampton Roads' greatest treasures, the Attucks Theatre, turns 100 years old. Musicians of the greatest caliber have performed at the Attucks, legends like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole just to name a few. The 600 seat venue was an instant source of pride to Norfolk’s Black Community. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
(big band music)
- Musicians of the greatest caliber performed here.
Great players played here.
- Going out and hearing somebody like Duke Ellington
or Cab Calloway or Nat King Cole or Louis Armstrong.
I can't even possibly imagine what it would be like
sitting in a restaurant and standing up and go
and walk into a theatre and hear Louis Armstrong
right down the street in my neighborhood.
- It was a place of great
entertainment in a segregated south.
This is what they had, and they had the best.
This was before The Apollo.
♪ A little yellow basket ♪
- I would describe the Attucks Theatre as
a national and state historic place.
For young people today, these will all be names in history.
It might send some of them to Google.
These are the greatest of the great artists
of all time and they were at this place.
- When I sit back and think who
was all part of that performance count.
That just gives me goose bumps really.
But Duke was, without question, one of the biggest artists
and most respected artist that they've had in that venue.
- [Narrator] Built in 1919, the history
of the Attucks Theatre is rich.
From the legendary performers it drew,
to the impact it had on a people
during a tumultuous time in American history.
The developers were a group of Black business
leaders known as the Twin City Amusement Corporation.
They called on Harvey Johnson,
a 26 year old architect, to build the theatre.
Not only would this unique structure serve as a venue for
top notch artists, it would double as a movie house and
provide office space for African American businesses.
Once completed, Johnson himself
occupied one of those spaces.
- Harvey Johnson is probably one of
the most interesting characters.
He went to the Carnegie School of Architecture,
he went to this white company to get a job
and they wouldn't even give him a bench.
So he went into the military.
And landed at Norfolk Naval Shipyard
where he became a draftsman.
As soon as the war was over,
he started his construction business.
- [Narrator] As an architect, his unique style
and attention to detail shone through.
As he took on what would soon become
a focal point of Norfolk's Black community.
- In those days too it was rare a performance center
to be built that was designed for a listening
environment for the Black community,
because dance was heavy in the Black community.
So for a theatre to be built specifically for the purposes
of listening like the white audiences were doing for
symphonic music, they were used to going and sitting
and listening to the orchestras perform.
That wasn't common place for the Black Community.
- [Narrator] Johnson was one of only a handful
of black architects in Virginia during that time.
- From a historical perspective, that was one of the first
in the country that the architect was an African American,
it was a building designed and paid for
by African American money and featured
predominately African American performers.
- [Narrator] He built structures across the region,
including several banks and numerous churches.
Johnson worked diligently in his community, and was a
founding member of what is now Norfolk State University.
- In the day they did not have amplification.
And this theatre was built perfectly to the
size where a person could stand on the stage
and speak in a normal voice and be heard.
- [Narrator] As in many African American communities
across the US, it was important that the new theatre
be named after an African American hero.
They decided to name it after Crispus Attucks,
the first American to lose his
life in the Revolutionary War.
A scene from the Boston Massacre is painted on the theatre
curtain which shows the redcoats advancing,
and the fallen patriot, Crispus Attucks on the ground.
- [Narrator] An honor to Crispus Attucks,
who was leader and voice that day.
The first to defy, and the first to die,
with Maverick, Carr, and Gray.
His breast was the first one rent apart
that liberty's stream might flow.
For our freedom now and forever,
his head was the first bid low.
- This was the time when the state of Virginia
passed legislation that put into place
very strong policies of segregation.
Many African Americans, were looking for ways
in which the community could rally around their heroes.
- [Narrator] Once the doors opened,
the Attucks was an instant sensation.
For many of the biggest stars suddenly
Norfolk was the place to be.
These were the artists who were reshaping
the landscape of American Music.
- Now here comes someone like Bessie Smith,
now all of sudden Blues takes on a specific form.
She reshaped the whole landscape of the blues.
- [Narrator] Portsmouth native Ruth Brown also graced the
Attucks' stage along with memorable voices
like Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday.
♪ You must remember this ♪
- It was the place.
People came from other places in the country to visit
the Harlem of the South, is what they dubbed it,
the Harlem of the South.
And Church Street was that main artery of it.
There were all kinds of professionals and businesses.
♪ From Mattis to Mobile from Memphis to St. Joe ♪
♪ Wherever the four winds blow ♪
♪ They blow everywhere ♪
- Cab was more than just a singer,
he was an actor, he was a dancer, a fabulous dancer.
He was just the consummate entertainer.
Funny, had a wicked sense of humor.
And Cab, was one of the first artists that brought
that element into a musical performance.
He would engage his band sometimes in conversation,
they would have these skits worked out.
So there was this deep humor element
into what was happening.
It was a truly entertaining show, watching Cab.
He was high energy.
From the moment he came on the stage to the moment he left.
And they all dressed too to the nines.
- [Narrator] Among the list of Attucks
greats was Ella Fitzgerald.
In addition to her powerful voice,
she improvised wordless melodies and rhythms flawlessly.
For African American audiences,
the Attucks was also their movie house.
- All the old early African American movies, especially the
silent movies, they were shown at the Attucks.
- [Narrator] Harvey Johnson Jr. recalls leaving his father's
office which was on the third floor of the Attucks
and walking across the hall to the
theatre's balcony to watch the silent films.
- I would always come at the time
when the westerns would be on.
Tom Nix and all those fellows.
And that organist could keep up with the action.
And actually created the sounds, the horses hooves,
the gunshots and so forth,
but you needed to know what the people were saying.
The organist couldn't do that.
So that the screen would have on it the words
that were being said by whichever character.
And you had to learn how to read.
If you couldn't read you had to sit there and look
at the action or be sitting beside somebody who could read.
Kids began reading early during those days, I know I did.
- [Narrator] For a decade, the stars came
and the crowds grew.
Inside the Attucks was a star-studded wonderland,
while outside, hard times were coming.
- When the Great Depression hit, the market crashed,
you know the black entrepreneurs that
were investing and spending money in that area.
Nobody had any more money, or if they had it,
they weren't spending it.
- People lost their jobs.
And the first to go were black folks.
And they didn't have, unless they had their own business
or were employed by black businesses.
They had no support.
- [Narrator] Even with the crash of '29 and all that
came with The Great Depression, if you could save a dime
or a dollar, you'd spend it at the Attucks.
- I don't think that people realize that the Attucks Theatre
played a multiplicity of roles in the community
or its importance on Church Street.
- [Narrator] Like most of the segregated South,
Norfolk was divided.
On Granby Street where whites shopped,
blacks were not welcomed.
But the Black community had Church Street where there were
Black banks, shops, restaurants, doctors
and lawyers to serve their needs and the beating heart
of Church Street was the Attucks Theatre.
- It was central to the heartbeat
and life blood of that business community.
It was not only a place of entertainment.
It was a place of community.
- The music, the movies, the entertainment, the parades.
I can just remember it just being a very exciting place.
And it was an opportunity to do things that you couldn't
do because of the segregated society around you.
It was that mecca,
that place where you could just be yourself.
- [Narrator] For the Church Street community,
having top notch performers walk through your
neighborhood made quite an impression.
- You recognized that there was a world beyond where you
lived and people were doing positive things there.
You knew there was another life
and it gave you something to exemplify and emulate.
- [Narrator] The owners of the Attucks Theatre took care
to change with the times as the motion picture
industry evolved, the Attucks was renovated
to accommodate the new talking pictures.
- The Attucks Theatre shut down in 1933 for extensive
renovations, and it reopened, and then you saw by
the following year, it was now called the Booker T.
- People that came to the Booker T, you'd didn't just
leave work and go there and see the movies.
You had to go home and change your clothes to come
into the Booker T, because you didn't go
in there like that and when they'd walk
up to the window and say give me a ticket.
I'd hand them a ticket and then 20 minutes
later they're back getting a refund.
I knew the management and managers
weren't gonna let them go in there.
So the manager would tell them go home,
change clothes and come back.
- [Narrator] By 1940 the fortunes of
Norfolk were on the rise.
Bonnie McEachin opened a 12 room hotel up the street
from the Attucks and was so busy that in six months time
she had to move to a location with twice as many rooms.
She named it the Plaza hotel.
- I needed double the amount that I did have because I
stayed filled all the time and most of the time people were
waiting, someone to check out so that they could check in.
- We as kids would see the great entertainers come in.
They all stayed up the street from me.
- Well there were a lot of stories about a lot of the
artists that came into Norfolk, but they would all stay
at Bonnie McEachin's, at the Plaza Hotel.
Anybody of color that's where you had to stay.
- They named it their home away from home.
If they were in a 50 mile radius or 75 mile radius, they'd
drive 100 miles to get right back there to sleep that night,
even if they had to get up the next day and move out.
They all lived at the Plaza.
People like Duke Ellington would order
from New York the steaks he wanted.
My husband would go on Colley Avenue,
have them cut for him, have them ready for him.
♪ Take out the papers and the trash ♪
They'd sit up all night long and rehearse.
Sometimes even make songs that were recorded like Yakety Yak
by the Coasters was made right in the dinning room.
♪ Yakety Yak ♪
♪ Don't talk back ♪
- [Narrator] When the performers weren't
taking center stage, local talent got their chance.
It was at one of those showcases that Terrance
Afer-Anderson's parents first caught each others eye.
- My Mom and Dad met at a talent
show at the Attucks Theater in the early '40's.
And my father happened to be there, in uniform,
he was in the Navy, he was a sailor
And he came over and he spoke to her and thus began a
great love affair that endured for 55 years of marriage.
♪ Bring in the dog and put out the cat ♪
- It was fun back in the day, man.
Back there, especially Church Street,
- [Narrator] For Gary US Bonds, who would later go on to
become a star himself, seeing performers of this magnitude
walk thru the community and later take center stage
at the Attucks was all he needed to know what
he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
- The acts that inspired me were two of my mom's favorite.
And she took me to the Attucks.
Booker T, they called it also.
Back in the day.
To see Bull Moose Jackson and Ivory Joe Hunter.
That was my first concert, you know.
The lights came on, and all the guys came out with their
shiny suits on, and different colors and everything.
And then the girls started screaming, you know?
And yelling for them.
That's what I wanna do.
That's exactly what I wanna do in life.
I like that style.
♪ And the swingingest song there could ever be ♪
♪ It was a night with Daddy G ♪
♪ Let me tell you that I never had it so good ♪
♪ Yeah and I know you never could ♪
- [Narrator] The Second World War brought a boom to
Norfolk with its Naval base and shipyards.
Black sailors and soldiers,
back from the war, had money to spend.
But with the changing times they
had more places to spend it.
Opportunities opened up beyond Church Street.
- You started seeing the number of
people on Church Street dwindle.
They were not shopping.
They were not attending the movies.
And then all of a sudden,
I was allowed to go over to Granby Street.
And there was the Lowes, and there was the Norva and there
was the Granby, and yes they were much larger than the
theatres on Church Street.
And I was attending and other African Americans were
going there but then all of a sudden, you'd go back
to Church Street and you could see the change.
♪ When the rain starts to fall in ♪
- [Narrator] Squeezed out by the changing times
the Attucks Theatre closed its doors in 1953.
What was once the glittering jewel of Church Street,
became a men's clothing store and pawn shop.
- The Booker T Theatre which is now the Attucks Theater
had been closed for about two or three years
and they were happy to sell it to us.
When I looked at that building, it was huge.
I couldn't imagine what we'd do with it.
Architects came in and we gutted the first floor,
leveled it out to street level
and installed a retail operation in the front.
The backside, they removed all the seats
and the backside was used all for storage.
- I remember thinking then, how tragic it was
that this historical mecca,
this treasure was being used as a warehouse.
- [Narrator] For 35 years, Stark and Legum occupied the
building along with the handful of
Black professionals who still occupied the upper floors.
- My father had a law office, in the Attucks Theatre
and as I'm thinking back about it,
probably from the middle 1950s until the middle 1960s.
- [Narrator] Meanwhile all around them businesses
like the Plaza Hotel fell to the bulldozer.
- I can never forget the tears that flowed that day,
when it was burned and they told me the next day
that I wouldn't be able to operate it again,
I'd have to tear it down and rebuild.
And that particular time, my husband was ill
and I knew it was one of the things that we couldn't afford.
- [Narrator] Norfolk was determined to rebuild.
It was out with the old,
to make room for new buildings and wider roads.
And neglected, now blighted neighborhoods
like Church Street corridor were the first to go.
But the memory of the Attucks Theatre would not rest.
In 1982, the Attucks was added to the
National Register of Historic Places.
A group of community and business leaders determined to
reverse the decay of once vibrant Church Street
envisioned a new Attucks Theatre.
It would take time and money.
The Crispus Attucks Cultural Center Board was formed.
They called on Father Joseph Green
and Andrew Fine to lead the fundraising charge.
- I had left the city council, but I'd left with the
statement from the council that if we raised the money
for the Attucks Theater, whatever we raised,
they would match it dollar for dollar.
But somebody was wise enough to suggest
that Andrew Fine could work with me to
find the money we needed to restore the Attucks.
- [Narrator] They had barely begun raising funds
when new architectural drawings made it clear they'd need
double the amount of money planned $8.4 million.
- It was a huge challenge and we knew how we had to chip
away at it and had to get the banking community behind us.
That was a typical way money was raised.
Vertexco, which was the company that did the restoration.
They got into it.
They only thing holding up the
ceiling was their imagination.
It was in bad, bad shape.
- [Joseph] The ceiling was the thing that we
thought that we could use.
We couldn't use any of it, it had to be replaced.
- I was up in the balcony making the pitch about all of the
reasons why he should give us a substantial amount of money.
And just like it had been planned, that panel came
from the roof straight down to the floor.
- [Joseph] It was a gift from heaven.
- And I never stopped talking.
I just kept on talking like that was a normal event here.
That ceiling was falling in.
Anyway, they gave us a very substantial gift.
And I don't know whether he ever got over it
but I certainly was amused by.
- [Narrator] Attucks Project manager Denise Christians
says the restoration was done in three phases.
- The first phase we abated hazardous materials
in the building and replaced the roof.
Also, during that time, we cleaned
and encapsulated the historic fire curtain
Phase two was the reconstruction the box seats, the balcony,
bringing in state of the art light equipment,
and sound equipment, and rigging equipment.
The third phase was the construction of a
new wing on the back of the building.
We developed three floors.
Banquet rooms, green room, and dressing rooms were installed
and the loading dock was built at the back of the building.
- [Narrator] For more than 50 years the Attucks stage had
been silent, but in October of 2004 the theatre opened once
again, bringing in Grammy winners
Wynton Marsalis and Al Jarreau and many more.
It also brought back the legends, like Ruth Brown
and Gary US Bonds, who came to the theatre as children.
- I remember coming in this theatre.
At the Booker T it was called then.
And I was up here one night trying
to get on the amateur hour.
My Daddy walked right down that aisle he said
"Alright, come on, come on."
In those days you didn't have to get home.
He took that belt off right then.
- When you walk out on that stage and you then you take
for a moment to think, what preceded you,
and who was actually on that stage before you.
It's easy to think about it.
I talked out loud, I've had people
ask me who I was talking to.
I said well I'm talking to some very powerful spirits here.
I say there are a lot of spirits in this room,
that have passed through here.
And have left their mark.
And it's like an honor and a blessing
for me to be on that stage performing.
And its one of my favorite venues to play.
- [Narrator] 100 years later, Harvey Johnsons' dream of
creating a place where quality entertainers could perform
and the community could come together lives on and the
dreamers who refused to allow the center of the
community to fade away can say with pride,
that the Attucks Theatre carries on.
- You have opportunity for Norfolk performers and
entertainers and creators to be on stage.
It's a spectacular time for the
community to embrace our young performers
- I was very excited to be here.
It was the only time I could really come here and do
something I really wanted to do for the rest of my life.
This show was A Christmas Carol.
I was a junior in high school and this was the last year
that I was performing at the
Attucks Theatre and I played Fred.
I remember when they first let down the backdrop and we saw
the Attucks soldier up there and I was so shocked
and amazed by it and the fact that it wasn't in a museum,
but it was here in the actual building.
At that moment I knew that I was part
of something that was bigger than me.
- [Jae] It still has that old feel to it.
It's hard to find that.
- It's a special, cultural, spiritual place.
Every time I go in there I feel it.
♪ What a wonderful world ♪
- Just to dress up and be on stage
with the lights hitting you.
That was it.
The Booker T.
♪ Well come on everybody, take a trip with me ♪
♪ Well down to Mississippi, down to New Orleans ♪
- There were a lot of stories I can't really tell.
♪ And the love is a-bloomin' there all the time ♪
- Thank God Denise came along at the right time.
Dennis didn't raise a lot of the money but
she helped us spend it all.
♪ I said, a-hey-hey-hey-yeah ♪
♪ Said, hey-hey-hey-yeah ♪
♪ I said, a-hey-hey-hey-yeah ♪
♪ Said, hey-hey-hey-yeah ♪
♪ I said come on, take a stroll down Basin Street ♪
- They told me, said "Ruth you don't have to hurry,
"cause the people are slowing down coming to the seats."
I said, "They must be my friends."
♪ And if you ain't been to heaven then you ain't been there. ♪
- Oh play that doll house music I love.
("New Orleans" by Gary US Bonds)
♪ I said, a-hey-hey-hey-yeah ♪
♪ Said, hey-hey-hey-yeah ♪
♪ I said a-look out, child ♪
♪ Yeah, yeah, yeah ♪